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Target executive’s departure puts spotlight on CIOs

NEW YORK — The departure of Target’s chief information officer in the wake of the company’s massive pre-Christmas data breach highlights the increased pressure facing executives who are charged with protecting corporate computer systems from hackers whose attacks are on the rise and becoming more sophisticated.

Years ago, the job of a chief information officer focused mainly on the upkeep of computer systems. In their largely behind-the-scenes rolls, most of their major decisions centered on the kinds of technological innovations a company would adopt, when and how much to pay for systems upgrades, and the creation and maintenance of company websites.

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But the rise of computer crime in recent years changed the job description. At the same time, the surging use of personal smartphones and tablets in business settings has given information chiefs even more technology to manage, along with countless new points of entry for hackers to breach their systems.

As a result, information chiefs have their hands full and a much more high-profile role than ever before.

Target Corp.’s breach sent shock waves through the profession. And information chiefs from companies in all walks of business — from retail to banking and drug discovery — are using the breach as a rallying point to call attention to their struggle and garner additional funds and manpower to fight digital threats.

Cyberattacks were on the rise long before Target’s news that hackers had stolen 40 million debit and credit card numbers, along with the personal information belonging to as many as 70,000 people. A 2013 Hewlett-Packard Co.-sponsored study by the Ponemon Institute found that the average annual cost of cybercrime incurred by a benchmark sample of US organizations was $11.6 million per organization, a 26 percent increase from the previous year.

For a host of companies, the Target breach was a pivotal event that permanently altered the way they approach data security. Many chief information officers say they are receiving more support, but they say the trade off is that they are facing increased scrutiny from their CEOs and other executives. If their fortress walls fall to hackers, their jobs will be on the line.

A Chief Information Officer’s Plight

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Ken Grady, information chief of the Ipswich, Masss., life sciences company New England BioLabs Inc., says the increased attention to data security has been a good thing for him. It has prompted much needed support from colleagues. But that backing comes at a cost.

‘‘If I have a breach in spite of all that, I need to be able to say that we did everything we could to prevent it,’’ Grady said. ‘‘If I can’t do that, then it would have a negative effect on me.’’

Analysts believe the Target data theft could not have had a positive effect on Beth Jacob, who had served as the company’s chief information officer since 2008. Target said Wednesday that Jacob’s resignation was her decision, but analysts say Jacob took the fall amid a storm of bad publicity for the Minneapolis-based company.

Tim Scannell, director of strategic content for the CIO Executive Council, a professional trade group, says companies have come to realize the importance of security. The result: boosted budgets and staffing increases.

‘‘I think CIOs are getting more respect,’’ Scannell says. ‘‘They’re winning a seat at the table. But along with that, we have a heightened security risk, so they’re under pressure to do something about it.’’

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